Mike D’Angelo came to the mat at the Pinning Down Autism New York/New Jersey Charity Challenge with the Empire State squad down 8-7 and looking for its first lead of the evening.
To put New York ahead on the scoreboard, D’Angelo would have to beat two-time NJ State champion Craig De La Cruz.
D’Angelo wasted little time, getting on the board first with a takedown. He took control in the top position and never relented, coming away with a 3-2 victory in which his opponent’s only points came on stall calls.
"I got that early takedown and I know a lot of kids like to play the neutral game," D'Angelo said. "I disagree with that tactic. If you ride someone out, a lot of times you break them and you have an advantage the rest of the match. Being ridden out - it's almost like you can't breathe on bottom and it destroys confidence."
D'Angelo said that victory over De La Cruz was big for him, as it brought him into the national limelight.
However, it was only one of several impressive wins for the Commack senior this offseason following his second consecutive All-State performance in Albany (third at 126 pounds in 2014; fifth at 120 in 2013).
After topping De La Cruz, he bested a number of out of state foes at the NHSCA Nationals in Virginia Beach, with three pins, a technical fall and a 10-0 major on his way to a silver medal at 126 pounds.
And then, on his path to first place at the Super 32 Chambersburg qualifier, D’Angelo defeated Mickey Phillippi of Pennsylvania, a top 10 wrestler nationally, by a 4-1 score.
None of this came as a surprise to Craig Vitagliano (Commack assistant/Ascend Wrestling), who has worked with D’Angelo for four years.
“Mike is excited to wrestle anyone you put in front of him,” Vitagliano said. “He doesn’t spend time looking at the brackets. Some wrestlers beat the guys they’re supposed to beat and lose to the guys they’re supposed to lose to. Mike, on paper, wasn’t supposed to beat some of the guys he has, but he digs deep. He’s very funky, mentally tough and tenacious.”
That tenacity is just one of the reasons D’Angelo was coveted by numerous college coaches, including from some of the top academic institutions in the nation.
And after considering schools such as Columbia, Brown and Pennsylvania, D’Angelo recently gave his commitment to Princeton.
"I loved the coaches and the campus and really felt like I was welcome there," D'Angelo said. "I fit in well with the team. A lot of the schools I was looking at are in the city and I'm not really a city person. Not to mention, it's ranked #1 in the nation. It was the first visit I took and I thought, how could it get any better than this?"
D’Angelo will likely begin as a 141-pounder at the next level as he continues his ascent up the weight classes. As an eighth grader, he nabbed third in Section 11 at 96 pounds. The next three years, he went to 106, 120 and 126 and was the runner up in Suffolk County each time.
“Sometimes guys are really good at 99 and then you never hear from them again as they grow,” Vitagliano said. “What impresses me about Mike is that he’s continued to get better as he’s grown. I think it’s the exception, not the norm. He’s really turned it on recently, avenging losses, beating nationally-ranked kids. He’s continues to have more and more success.”
Success is a good way to describe D’Angelo’s career. He has compiled a 147-17 record since his eighth grade campaign with 13 of his losses coming to state champions/nationally ranked wrestlers (Nick Piccininni, Alex Delacruz, Travis Passaro and Kevin Jack (CT)).
“Mike studies hard," Vitagliano said. "He watches film and asks a lot of questions. He picks things up really quickly. I could show him something new in between matches at a tournament and he’ll do what I show him without breaking stride in the next match. I haven’t had too many guys who can do that.”
Vitagliano has had a number of his wrestlers go on to win County and State championships. Those are on D’Angelo’s checklist for 2014-15.
"I haven't even won a County title yet," D'Angelo said. "That might be the reason I've improved so much, just in the last couple of months. I take those losses as motivation. We all have our failures, but it's really about how you get up and continue to work hard. That's how you'll be successful in this sport. There's always so much more to learn in the sport of wrestling. You can always get better."
He plans on continuing to get better. While he's thinking about standing on top of the podium in Suffolk County and in Albany, he has some shorter term goals in mind as well.
"I've had some big wins, but unless I continue to win, it doesn't matter," he said. "I'll face some really good competition at the Journeymen Classic and then I want to go down to North Carolina and win the Super 32 and show everyone what I'm capable of. A lot of people say that, but I actually think I can do it."
It won’t stop there.
“He gets the job done every day and even if he’s cutting weight, you don’t know it because he just doesn’t complain," Vitagliano said. "I wish I had a room with 10 D’Angelos – not just because of his ability but because of his incredible work ethic.”
He looks forward to taking that work ethic with him to the mat and the classroom in the Ivy League.
Mike D'Angelo wanted to thank his parents, Craig Vitagliano from Ascend Wrestling, Rich Lugo from Spartan Fitness and "everyone who’s been there for the ride."